Corona crisis: What would Joseph do?

Imagine that biblical hero Joseph is ruling Israel today, facing the corona pandemic crisis. What would he do?

We’re reading about Joseph and his exploits these days in our weekly Torah portions. He went from offensive teenager to captive slave in a dungeon to de facto ruler of Egypt. His brothers betrayed him, but in the end, he forgave them.

As a ruler, Joseph’s methods were cruel. He knew, through his divinely inspired interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, that Egypt would face a seven-year famine after seven years of bumper crops.

He had two choices. He could have put out a statement to the people, urging them to gather and store their extra crops to prepare for the drought. Instead, he taxed the people in the form of a portion of their crops (some say a fifth, but that appears to be a mistranslation), and he set the grain aside in the kingdom’s own warehouses.

When the famine hit, the people had to turn to Joseph for food. Again, he had two choices. He could have opened the warehouses and handed out the grain to the needy. Instead, he forced the people to buy the grain. When they ran out of money, he took their land. After the land was gone, he took them as slaves.

According to today’s standards, and that’s the easily criticized premise of this article, Joseph was not exactly a populist or a man of the people. Faced with the corona crisis, he would have forced people to close their businesses, lose their income, eat through their savings, and with the exception of small amounts of compensation handed out to the wealthy as well as the poor, let them suffer—leading to hardships, hunger, and even domestic and public violence.

Oh, wait. That’s kind of what we’re doing. Though to be fair, if Joseph were true to his allegiances—the kingdom before the people—he would probably have sold the vaccinations instead of providing them through HMOs for no extra charge. At least we’re not going that far.

Also to be fair, our people are not doing their part, either. By failing to wear masks consistently, stay away from crowds, and wash hands often, we have brought much of this problem on ourselves. Governments have been setting the wrong examples, with officials flouting their own rules and arrogantly putting out ads about color-coded ratings that determine corona limitations that read, “Our rating depends only on you.” You, not us. Again to be fair, my city changed its ads to “us” after I complained, but the billboards on the main roads still say “you.”

Clearly, there was/is a better way to deal with this crisis. For an example of a more enlightened leader, we can look back at the current Torah portions.

Joseph may have saved the kingdom, but it was Judah who saved the future Jewish people.

First, he talked his brothers out of killing the obnoxious, bossy teenaged Joseph, selling him into slavery instead. Then he persuaded his elderly father to part with his beloved son Benjamin as the only chance to see the Egyptian strongman again and buy more food.

The strongman, Joseph, Benjamin’s only full brother, plotted to keep Benjamin with him. We don’t know what he would have done to the other brothers, but chances are it wouldn’t have been pretty.

Into the breach jumps Judah. In the longest speech in the Bible, he entreats Joseph to let Benjamin go, offering himself as a slave instead. He mentions their father 14 times, plucking his brother’s heartstrings, and leading Joseph to realize that these are his brothers, after all, and he owes it to them, and certainly to their father, to come clean. He reveals his true identity and invites them to join him in Egypt.

How did Judah know what to do?

There’s a clue a little farther back, when Judah is tricked by his daughter-in-law into fulfilling the requirement of providing her a husband after two of his sons died, and he admits he was wrong.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

You won’t hear this anywhere else—but it’s clear to me that Judah knew he was talking to Joseph when he started his speech. He had brought Benjamin to Joseph’s table, watching him get special treatment though he was the youngest. He looked at Joseph, looked at Benjamin, looked back at Joseph, and he recognized who they were—brothers. Then he devised a speech designed to appeal to Joseph’s innate sense of goodness, justice, and family loyalty. It worked.

So now, with the corona crisis, we can ask—what would Judah do?

It is, after all, Judah who becomes the forerunner of the Jewish people—not Joseph. Judah is the one with the people’s touch. Judah is the one who leads by example, not by decree.

Forgive me for the wild extrapolation. I actually dislike it intensely when people judge past eras on the basis of modern standards, or ascribe modern words and actions to biblical figures, and that’s what I’m doing here.

Even so…a leader like Judah, who puts the interests of his people before his own…would find a better, more humane way to deal with the corona challenge.

Perhaps Judah would lead his people (us, not you) into voluntary compliance with regulations, not police enforcement, because it’s the right thing to do. Perhaps he would mobilize the government and charities to help those in need.

Perhaps—and this is what’s missing here today—he would create a reality in which we are all in this together, we all have responsibility for each other, and we will do the right thing for the sake of us all. Masks, distancing, and hygiene. It’s not that hard.

Then, Judah would say, we wouldn’t need lockdowns at all.

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Correspondent Mark Lavie has been covering the Mideast since 1972. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” relives his experiences and comes to a surprising conclusion.

A new Middle East you didn’t see coming

Here’s my fantasy about how the Middle East will develop in the wake of the normalization between Israel and a number of Arab nations. Could it happen? We’ll see…

A ‘New Middle East’ You Didn’t See Coming

By Mark Lavie

“Bahrain and UAE have signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, ending decades of hostility and ushering in a new era of Mideast cooperation.” – news reports, October 2020

“Sudan and Morocco join in agreement frenzy.”—news reports

Could this actually happen?

Frustrated by decades of Palestinian obstinacy, eager to cement new Middle East alliances, moderate Arab nations were finally moving to put the Israeli-Palestinian issue behind them and remove that thorn from beneath their saddle.

They launched a two-pronged invasion, a sort of pincer operation, but not the classic kind. One Arab army entered Gaza from Egypt, while the other rolled into the West Bank from Jordan.

Israel played no active role in the invasion. It had already agreed to the terms of an arrangement, maintaining control of its main settlement blocs while evacuating some of the smaller outposts in the heart of the West Bank—and finally receiving an internationally recognized border on its eastern front.

No one was calling this “peace.” The new Middle East was not one of peaceful relations among all its nations. Instead, it was a battleground mostly of Shiite Muslims on one side and Sunni Muslims on the other.

Because of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and its repeated threats to destroy the Jewish state, Israel fit easily into the Sunni camp led by Saudi Arabia. One by one, the Sunni nations went public with their relations with Israel, formalizing them—some with agreements they called “peace,” others sufficing with security and economic relations they preferred not to label, at least for now.

On the opposing side were Iran, Qatar and Syria, along with swaths of what used to be Iraq—and the Palestinians, who had thrown in with Iran and Qatar.

After decades of demanding that Israel offer the Palestinians a state of their own, then watching the Palestinians turn down repeated offers of just such a state, the latest in 2000 and 2008, the Sunni Arab nations decided that it was in their interest to bring Israel into their alliance instead of continually beating the Palestinian drum. In most cases, it didn’t mean hugs and kisses between Israelis and Arabs—not even with Egypt and Jordan, the first two Arab nations to sign full peace treaties with Israel.

Such a lovey-dovey relationship wasn’t the goal anymore, if it ever was. The realigned Middle East was a place of interests and alliances based on practical politics. By rejecting Israeli peace offers and then cursing Arab nations that warmed up to Israel, the Palestinians had put themselves on the wrong side, as far as the Sunni Arab nations were concerned. The Palestinians were no longer needed as a faux issue to distract Arab people from their real problems—the Palestinians had become part of the problem.

The two invading armies quickly deposed the rulers in the West Bank and Gaza and set up military governments. Instead of the peaceful end of decades of Israeli occupation, instead of the independent state the Palestinians rejected repeatedly, the Palestinians now faced the ruthless military rule of their Arab “brothers”—bans on demonstrations, bans on strikes, bans on “resistance” against Israel—and enforcement with a shoot-first, ask-questions-later mentality.

For Israel, though, the day-to-day change was minimal, besides the loss of Palestinian workers, who would not cross the new border at least in the beginning, and the painful resettling of a few thousand Israelis from the West Bank into Israel proper. Beyond the outcry of the now ignored professional Israel haters, no one paid attention. The Iran-Saudi conflict was much more important.

The main practical change for Israel was deployment of its military.
Alongside the two-pronged invasion, and in coordination with its Arab allies, the Israeli army pulled out of the West Bank after decades of costly and bloody occupation. Instead, the Israeli military would concentrate on its tasks in the new alliance—monitoring Iran and its allies, maintaining its deterrence in the form of advanced weaponry and providing intelligence to the allied forces.

  • OK, that was “fun.” Could it happen?

Probably not exactly as outlined here. But yes, there are signs of a sea change in the Arab world when it comes to both Israel and the Palestinians.

Within days of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signing peace agreements with Israel, Saudi Arabia started aiming harsh criticism at the Palestinian leadership.

That’s the same Saudi Arabia that sponsored the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which basically said Israel must hand over all the disputed territories to Syria and the Palestinians, and then the Arab world would make peace with Israel. The current trend is the opposite—Arab nations allying with Israel despite the intractable Palestinian issue.

Here’s what’s new in the new Middle East: After the Arab Spring started the process of political change in the region, mostly by its failure—a new generation of leaders is recognizing that ideology by itself isn’t enough. In a tough world, interests are more important.

Israel has understood that, on an official and military level, for decades. Its relations with Egypt and Jordan are called “cold peace.” They are anything but cold. The three nations cooperate on many levels, but find it convenient to keep them out of the headlines for domestic reasons.

Just as the Arab nations have stirred up anti-Semitism and hatred of Israel for domestic politics, so Israel’s leaders have harvested electoral benefits from stoking fear of enemies near and far. If that era of unrealistic fears comes to an end with the new regional alliances, then Israel will be the real winner here.

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Correspondent Mark Lavie has been covering the Middle East since 1972. His second book, “Why Are We Still Afraid?” is available on Amazon.

Egyptian soldiers on duty in Cairo (Mark Lavie)